Feds: Alabama to expand license office hours after probe

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — U.S. Department of Transportation officials announced Wednesday that it has reached an agreement with Alabama to expand the state's driver's license office hours after the agency found that black residents there were disproportionately hurt by a slate of closures and reductions in 2015.

The transportation department had launched an investigation last year after Alabama, citing budget concerns, shuttered 31 part-time offices where examiners gave driving tests about once per week.

The state said the closures were aimed at the offices that issued the fewest licenses each year, but the closures also came down hard on rural and heavily minority communities. It left more than a third of Alabama's 67 counties without a license office, including eight of the state's 11 counties with a majority African-American population.

"DMVs play a critical role in the day-to-day functioning of the American people, including ensuring their ability to drive to work and other essential services and to get proper identification needed to vote or open a bank account. No one should be prevented from accessing these services based on their race, color or national origin," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.

A section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in programs that receive federal funds and compliance "is not optional," Foxx said.

The federal agency said its investigation revealed that African-Americans residing in the state's Black Belt — a region that took its name from the darkly rich soil but is also home to many majority-black communities — are disproportionately underserved by the state's driver license services, causing a disparate and adverse impact on the basis of race.

Republican Gov. Robert Bentley's administration announced the closures on Sept. 30, 2015, after legislators largely rejected Bentley's proposal to raise taxes to deal with a budget shortfall. The announcement was met with heavy criticism and protests. Critics noted that Alabama had recently started requiring voters to show a license or other government-issued photo identification before casting a ballot.

After a backlash, Alabama said it would reopen the offices for one day per month, but critics said that was not enough.

Under the agreement announced this week, Alabama will double or triple the hours that many Black Belt offices are open — collectively adding 2,020 hours of operation each year.

The office in Wilcox County had been open one day per month but will now open three days per month, according to a copy of the agreement. The Bullock County office in Union Springs will go from being open two days per month to once per week, according to the agreement.

The rural offices, before they were closed, issued anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred licenses each year. The 31 locations in 2014 collectively issued 5,000 learners permits and 3,149 driver's licenses, and gave 10,587 permit exams, according to numbers from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.

Alabama did not agree with the federal agency's findings but wanted to establish a working relationship and avoid a formal investigation, according to a copy of the signed agreement.

"The governor is pleased an agreement was reached with the U.S. Department of Transportation," a Bentley spokesman said.

Bentley had lashed out when the federal agency announced the probe last year, calling it an attempt to politicize a budget decision. "This USDOT investigation is nothing more than a weak attempt to embarrass the people of Alabama and exploit our state in the name of a political agenda," Bentley said.

A civil rights group has raised the issue of the closures in a federal lawsuit filed last year challenging Alabama's photo voter ID law.

Former Alabama Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier in a deposition in the case said the governor's political adviser had the idea to close the offices to get the attention of lawmakers who had opposed Bentley's efforts to raise taxes to deal with a budget shortfall. Collier said his office recommended closing the offices that had the fewest transactions.

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